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Nutshell 2015

Nutshell 2015
Ian Patterson By

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Nutshell 2015
Bergen, Norway
May 27-30, 2015

For a decade now, Nutshell has been an important engine in promoting Norwegian jazz talent abroad. This year, Nutshell's four-day program presented nine acts of quite diverse stripes to an audience of festival directors, radio programmers, booking agents and journalists from fifteen European countries.

For bands who impress, Nutshell potentially offers a direct route to the stages of jazz festivals and clubs the length and breadth of Europe. In addition, international media spreads the word far and wide—and it's hardly a secret by now—that Norwegian jazz is something to get excited about.

Nutshell takes place under the wing of Nattjazz, one of Norway's oldest jazz festivals, which served up a whole lot more music besides, enabling the international delegates to feast their ears on a score or so of Norwegian bands.

There's a certain poetic symmetry in the fact that Nattjazz should be held in a former sardine factory. Bergen was built on fish, in particular cod, which was first exported from the city in the twelfth century. Fish is still a major export industry in Norway, and so too is jazz.

For a country with a population of just over five million, Norway punches well above its weight when it comes to jazz. It's not just the plethora of jazz festivals that the country sustains but the successful exportation of its numerous groups that in fairly recent times has positioned Norway as the European powerhouse of modern jazz.

It's rare indeed these days, at European jazz festivals of any size, not to encounter at least one Norwegian band on the program. Nutshell, in the historic city of Bergen, has played an increasingly significant role in building the international brand that is Norwegian jazz.

The Old Norse name for Bergen, Bjǫrgvin means 'the meadow among the mountains,' an appropriate appellation for this picturesque city situated on the west coast of Norway. Coming in by plane, the bird's-eye view of the mountains and fjord-peppered Bergen peninsula is as welcoming a vista as you can imagine. Little wonder then, given its idyllic setting and the fish jumping into the nets, that a city was founded here a thousand years ago.

Not quite as old, but firmly established nevertheless is Nattjazz, which was celebrating its 43rd edition. Nutshell—formerly known as Jazz Norway in a Nutshell—is a mere stripling at ten years of age and it was Nutshell that kicked off the music with two showcase bands of contrasting styles.

Day One Showcases

Ola Kvernberg, Kirsti Huke, Erik Nylander

The first showcases were held in the old world opulence of the Bergen Chamber of Commerce. Here, in times past, cigar-chomping traders reclined in armchairs and talked fish. The armchairs—and sea-themed paintings the size of billiards tables—remained unchanged from times past, though the traders gathered here were dealing not in fish, but jazz.

Playing its first concert as a trio, fiddler Ola Kvernberg, vocalist Kirsti Huke and drummer Erik Nylander's set began with a gently hypnotic version of Nick Drake's "Riverman"; Kvernberg's looped ostinato formed the rhythmic backbone, accompanied by Nylander's brushes, while Huke captured the plaintive quality of the original tune. As alluring as Huke's vocals were, the tune only really sparked into life with Kvernberg's lilting solo.

Likewise on Tom Waits' "Lonely" Huke followed the original blueprint fairly closely, with Kvernberg's folksy balladry providing the highlight. Pizzicato fiddle, melancholy vocals and bobbing mallets fused on Abba's "The Day before You Came," which flowed seamlessly into an atmospheric interpretation of Nick Cave's "Into My Arms." On the latter, drone and layered vocals forged ethereal harmonies before gently plucked strings and mallets groove accompanied Huke's captivating lead.

After nearly fifteen years playing on each other's projects there was an obvious empathy in the trio's play, but whether such familiar material will entice Europe's jazz festivals and club owners remains to be seen. With such talented musicians more provocative original material might have produced more stimulating rewards but there was no escaping the beauty in the trio's simple chemistry.

Equinox

The quintet Equinox was also playing its first gig together. In contrast to the stripped-down lyricism of Kvernberg, Huke and Nylander that had preceded it, Equinox served up more groove-based fare, with, at times, a coruscating energy fuelled by bassist Magne Thormodsaeter and the twin-drums engine of Ivar Thormodsaether and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. Saxophonist Kjetil Møster and guitarist Thomas T. Dahl unleashed fiery solos of a free-jazz disposition.

Oddly perhaps, the two drums were positioned side by side, when greater surround-sound dynamism may have been effected by placing them at opposite ends of the stage. Their play was often quite synchronized, and in truth, greater rhythmic tension might have been expected from such a set-up as opposed to purely rhythmic density.

In the midst of the collective bustle pockets of calm led by bass held sway, but they were brief pauses before the pulsating rhythms and honking, biting lead lines reclaimed the ascendancy. In one of the quieter passages Dahl executed a sinewy solo a little evocative of John Scofield.

But it was the thumping unison riffs and pounding unison drums that provided the greatest sonic tensions -raging fires that resolved in brief, fluttering saxophone cadenzas and longer, drawn-out ensemble passages of some lyricism.

This stirring debut performance by a highly charged quintet held the promise of even greater adventures to come down the line. A band to watch out for.

Day Two Showcases

Frida Fredericke Waaler Waervagen/Christian Hundsnes Grovien

It's not all fjords In Norway; increasingly tourists are drawn here to sample the arts, and Norway has a rich historical and contemporary arts tradition to offer, from painter Edward Munch and playwright/theatre director/poet Henrik Ibsen to crime novelist Karin Fossum.

Edvard Grieg, A-ha and Jan Garbarek are just some of Norway's most famous musical ambassadors and the country boasts a folkloric tradition second to none. In addition, Norwegian Black Metal/Death Metal is internationally influential, as indeed is its incredibly varied jazz.

Two contrasting showcase concerts—in conjunction with the Bergen International Festival—served up a taste of classical and contemporary sounds in the stunning surroundings of 19th century violinist/composer Ole Bull's home, a fifty-minute boat ride from Bergen.

First up was internationally renowned cellist Frida Fredrikke Waller Waervagen, who gave a commanding thirty-minute recital of short classical pieces, accompanied by pianist Christian Hundsnes Grovien. Technically impressive, Waervagen's vigorous attack was matched by the emotional nuance of her play. Hundsnes was a sympathetic accompanist and enjoyed the spotlight with a solo recital of a popular Norwegian wedding tune—a moonlight sonata for the fjords.

Christian Wallumrød

Drawing from Norwegian folk, early music, minimalism and jazz, pianist Christian Wallumrod's recordings for ECM have established his reputation as one of the most distinctive pianists of his generation. For this showcase Wallumrød played two strongly contrasting pieces: the first was meditative and minimalist, with the repetitive motif a subtly evolving mantra whose tail notes echoed like drone; the second number was a slow grooving, bluesy vamp evocative of Keith Jarrett.

Ole Bull

As compelling as both showcases were, the figure of the eccentric Bull was omnipresent, his larger-than-life persona reflected in the Arabic, Jewish and European design of the onion domes, balconies, columns and intricate carvings of his home -a spectacular wooden temple to one of Norway's greatest musical figures.

A veritable rock 'n' roll star in his day, Bull toured the world tirelessly. In the calendar year 1836-37, for example, he played no fewer than 274 concerts throughout England and Ireland, and amassed great wealth during his lifetime.

With his money, Bull attempted to set up a utopian Norwegian-American colony in Pennsylvania and also dreamed of building a castle. Both plans got off the ground, but in the end, neither came to fruition. It's perhaps fair to say that Bull's virtuosity, which brought him comparisons to Paganini—rather than his compositional prowess—is the main source of his enduring fame.

Bull was a legendary figure during his lifetime. He carried smelling salts to revive the ladies who swooned in the face of his dazzling musicianship, toured America and Europe on numerous occasions and played on top of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt in 1876, four years before his death at the age of seventy.

His summer retreat, and venue for the two showcase concerts, was built on the island of Lysoen in 1873. A wooden cathedral-esque structure, it took thirty carpenters a year to build. Inspired by the Alhambra and Moorish Granada, the intricately carved walls, beams and arches provided a striking setting in which to appreciate the morning's music.

The showcase concerts of Waervagen and Wallumrød were part of the Bergen International Festival, a two-week banquet of theatre, circus, dance and music running concurrently with Nutshell/Natjazz. For lovers of the arts, the two-week period straddling the end of May and the beginning of June is a great time to visit Bergen, surely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity

One of Norway's most respected drummers, Gard Nilssen's multiple collaborations reflect his wide-ranging sonic palette. He can illuminate any setting with his ceaselessly inventive drumming, but it's his own projects—either led or co-led—that perhaps reveal most about his driving forces.

Drumming Music (Gigafon, 2013) was a daring unaccompanied venture that saw Nilssen summon the spirits of John Zorn, Zen Buddhism and any number of master percussionists, an epithet that surely also applies to him very well. That recording was an all-acoustic outing and this showcase in Augustin hotel, downtown Bergen, presented the live premiere of his acoustic trio, the aptly named Acoustic Unity.

In a brief set lasting just over twenty minutes, the trio of Nilssen, bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Andre Roligheten gave a blistering performance of free-jazz where bone-shuddering rhythms underpinned sinewy tenor explorations.

Furious fast-walking bass, a drumming blitz and Roligheten's scurrying improvised lines created a dense wall of sound, though there was space for a measured, unaccompanied bass solo—an island of repose—before the trio put its foot on the gas once more.

At one point Roligheten played tenor and soprano in unison—reviving memories of Roland Kirk—for harmonic effect rather than mere showmanship. Once more the energy abated, with Nilssen switching to brushes and ushering in a lyrical passage that was striking in the wake of the preceding maelstrom.

The hard-grooving "Adam's Ale," from the trio's forthcoming debut release Firehouse (Clean Feed, 2015) saw Nilssen and Eldh keep a tight rhythmic rein as Roligheten cut loose, his stuttering/charging phrases replicated or embellished by the ever-alert Nilssen. It was thrilling stuff and it all ended just a little too soon.

Obra: Bergen Big Band & Batagraf

The old sardine factory that is the venue for Nattjazz is divided into several rooms of varying sizes and characters. The biggest space, the Rokeriet, hosted the opening concert of Nattjazz 2015, an ambitious tragi-comic piece of theatre—musically backed—that addressed contemporary issues of economic disorder and migration, corruption and chaos. The piece was premiered in a church in 2012, and this arrangement with Jon Balke at the helm was a tribute to former Bergen Big Band leader Olav Dale, who passed away in 2014.

With a portrait of the perfect nuclear family to the right of the stage and several actors from the Den Nationale Scene drinking post-dinner at a round table to the left, the setting was unusual, to say the least, for a jazz festival. Inevitably, the Norwegian dialog of the actors was lost on the majority of Nutshell delegates, and given the dominance of the theatrical narrative over the music, the show seemed imbalanced.

That's not to say that the music was somehow inconsequential, for the arrangements occasionally sparkled, with the percussion group Batagraf providing the heartbeat of the performance. A little more soloing would have enlivened things, with the three or four solos dished out awarded to a single saxophonist, a monopoly that bordered on the predictable.

It may be that this work would succeed better in a theatre, promoted as tragi-comedy with musical backing, rather than at a jazz festival where audiences—bringing inevitable expectations—may not be fully prepared for such subtle wit and lengthy dialog.

It's unfair to judge any work of theatre in an alien language but the rather heavy evidence suggested that this show will likely require some tweaking if it is to tour successfully abroad.

Waldemar 4

Bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske is part of the rhythmic engine in the Hanna Paulsberg Concept, whose albums Waltz for Lili (Ora Fonogram, 2012) and Song for Josia (Ora Fonogram, 2014) have positioned it as one of the most persuasive Norwegian bands of recent years. Fiske is no mean composer himself, as this vibrant gig from Waldemar 4 demonstrated.

Originally intended as a one-off commission for Moldejazz 2014, Waldemar knew a good thing when he heard it and persuaded pianist Havard Wiik, saxophonist Andre Roligheten and drummer Erik Nylander that they still had ground to explore.

From the tightly spun unison lines of the boppish heads to freer passages, Fiske's own concept embraced traditions spanning Charlie Parker and the looser sonic terrain of free-jazz—a fusion that was perfectly illustrated in the blistering, knotty opening number; fast-walking bass and Wiik's scurrying keys gave way to fractured rhythms and more abstract phrasing, whose loose threads came together in a closing unison statement.

The remainder of the set followed a similar pattern—with a pit-stop for a slower, John Coltrane-esque blues-based number mid-set and a delightful, African-flavored slow-burner near the end.

Waldemar 4 illustrated in emphatic style that groove-based tradition is not incompatible with free improvisation and that discipline and freedom are but two sides of the same coin.

Day Three Showcases

"Did you ever go to a place...I think it was called Norway?" Slartibartfast—the Magrathean designer of planets—asked earthling Arthur Dent in Douglas Adam's book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Pan, 1979). Dent responded in the negative, to Slartibartfast's disappointment. "Pity, that was one of mine," said Slartibartfast. "Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges."

Slartibartfast's universally acclaimed crinkly edges were much in view on the hour-long drive from Bergen to Hardanger for day three of Nutshell's showcases. The former Viking kingdom of Hardanger is famous for its fiddles, which have gained renown the world over, but fiddles were absent from the two showcases.

The journey from Bergen to Hardanger was unforgettable, the bus passing through breath-taking glacial scenery. Fjords, plunging waterfalls, tree-clad hills and snow-capped mountains, verdant valleys, mirror-like fresh-water lakes, stone and wooden houses, all rolled by under the constantly evolving mosaic of clouds.

The first port of call was the art house Kabuso in Øystese—a modern gallery that hosts works by major international and local artists—and an acoustically refined performance space.

Orter Eparg

Formed in 2008, Orter Eparg's music revolves around bassist Dan Peter Sundland's tightly coiled compositions that harness melody, layered rhythms and free improvisation. Sundland is an ambitious composer, as Elevenette (Ora Fonogram, 2014)—his debut as leader for classical and improvising musicians—demonstrated, and whist Orter Eparg was more streamlined by comparison there was depth aplenty in its arresting, unpredictable narratives.

Three compositions were rolled into one continually unfolding, twenty-minute rollercoaster ride. Pianist/Rhodes player Kjetil Jerve's dual ostinato/melodic intro and Sundland and drummer Andreas Wildhagen's metronomic grooves soon gave way to the free-flowing, intense dialog that ensued. Contrasts abounded, with the fractured rhythms of an abstract, minimalist passage juxtaposed against a relentless bass ostinato and a busy ride cymbal that underpinned pedal-driven, jangling piano impressionism.

A pocket of scratchy, nervous improvisation—all start and stop—threw up percussive angst, fleeting melodicism and quite delicate interplay that teetered on the edge of blossoming into something more substantial, before quietly fading. Just when the over-arching rhythms and interconnected patterns of Orter Eparg's music began to reveal themselves the performance was suddenly over. Still, when you're left wanting more the showcase had evidently done its job.

Nina and the Butterfly Fish

It was a short drive from the Kabuso to the Hardanger Fartoyvernsenter (wooden boat preservation centre) where a hearty fish soup was followed by the second showcase -Nina and the Butterfly Fish.

The venue was an old ferry boat, typical of those that linked the island and fjord districts to the roads in the first half of the twentieth century, in the days before the mighty tunnels burrowed routes through the mountains.

With her fiery mane of red hair and commanding presence, singer/guitarist Nina Kristine Linge cut a dashing figure—like a punkish Joni Mitchell. Dan Peter Sundland—having also made the short journey from Kobus—ploughed funky bass furrows while drummer Hans Hulbaekmo kept infectious, in-the-pocket-grooves. The trio fairly ripped on "Don't Let Go" and "Come on Sweetheart," with Linge's caressing lyricism, punchy poetry and soaring exclamations making a potent brew.

From rootsy folk-pop to danceable rhythms and subtly bluesy rock grooves, the trio's ability to shift gears suddenly and transform a tune's vibe was notable. Though Linge's vocals were a focal point, her peppery guitar punctuations significantly colored the music, infusing the slow-medium tempo tune "What the World Needs" with a seductive West African gait. Southern African bass rhythms underpinned the final number, a jaunty ode to the essence of love.

Nina and the Butterfly Fish's idiom of kaleidoscopic colors, beautifully distilled, spoke directly to feet and heart and won converts from the first to the last infectious notes of an engaging set.

Daniel Herskedal—Slow Eastbound Train

The second evening of Natjazz presented an immediate dilemma for many delegates who had to choose between Arild Andersen in the main hall and tuba player Daniel Herskedal's ensemble in the more intimate confines of the Sardinen.

Andersen's sextet was playing the music of Charles Mingus in a project originally commissioned by the Oslo Jazz Festival to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mingus' celebrated Norwegian gig in 1964. Andersen had attended Mingus' Oslo gig as an impressionable eighteen-year-old and half a century on there wasn't a spare seat in the house as Andersen's sextet played a two and a half hour tribute to one of his greatest musical inspirations.

However, it was the up-and-coming Herskedal, a tuba player of extraordinary facility, which called this author's attention. Herskedal burst onto the international scene with Neck of the Woods (Edition Records, 2012), his gorgeous collaboration with Marius Neset, but at Nattjazz 2015 he was presenting the music from his impressive follow-up, Slow Eastbound Train (Edition Records, 2015).

Herskedal dealt in melodies lush and haunting, and bass profundo rhythmic pulse, particularly during pianist Elof Dayle's probing solos. Erik Nylander was an empathetic presence on drums/percussion throughout and the string quartet of violinists Lisa Voldsdal and Adrian Løseth Waade, violist Isa Caroline Holmesland and cellist Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen brought orchestral warmth and pizzicato edge to the mix.

The music encompassed slow, bluesy meditations, African and Mediterranean roots, contemporary chamber elegance and, on occasion, overtly jazz-inspired language. Rhythmically and melodically pronounced, Herskedal's compositional finesse was foregrounded in the ebb and flow of this stunning, suite-like performance.

Whether unaccompanied, as on the delightful "Minstrel Noir" or buoyed by strings on a sympathetic interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky's "Bydlo" Herskedal's inherently lyrical playing was never less than captivating. Likewise, Herskedal's arrangements, particularly on the lovely "Sea Breeze Front," were utterly seductive.

As Paul Hanson is to the bassoon and Edmar Castaneda is to the harp, so too Daniel Herskedal is redefining the role of the tuba in creative music.

Cortex

Not to be confused with the 1970s French jazz funksters of the same name, Cortex was founded by Thomas Johansson in 2007 and has released three albums to date—two studio efforts and the in-concert Live! (Clean Feed Records, 2014). And it's in the live arena that Cortex is best appreciated. As this incendiary concert underlined, the quartet draws its inspiration from the free—jazz and experimentalism of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and John Zorn.

The tireless rhythm section of double bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen stoked the quartet's engine as Johansson and Kristoffer Berre Alberts dovetailed like birds of fire, spiralling in and out of each other's slipstreams and locking in tight unison lines. The contrasts between free-wheeling improvisation and compositional form—with groove and melody in plentiful supply—made for a visceral and engaging ride.

Relentless bass ostinatos and thudding drum patterns evoked a contemporary rock aesthetic at times, with Nilssen a compelling dynamo. Bruising, honking sax and searing trumpet dominated, though a section featuring Johansson's muted trumpet accompanied by brushes provided a rare touch of lyrical repose. A vibrant set of free-jazz tempered by a boppish logic earned the quartet a strong ovation.

Day Four Showcases

The following morning a bus took the Nutshell delegates to the foot of Mount Ulriken, one of the so-called 'seven mountains' that surround Bergen. Locals debate precisely which of the mountains surrounding Bergen constitute the seven, though why they didn't just dub them the ten mountains is anybody's guess.

There's is no disputing, however, that at 643 metre above sea level, Ulriken is the highest. The views from the mountain-top of Bergen and the surrounding countryside were simply fantastic and it was inspired programing to stage the final two showcase concerts of Nutshell 2015 in the mountain-top restaurant.

Erlend Apneseth, Stephan Meidell, Oyvind Hegg-Lind

Erlend Apneseth is one of Norway's most renowned Hardanger fiddle players. Traditionally rooted, in recent years Apneseth has made the contemporary/improvised music scene his home and his debut recording Blikkspor (Grappa Musikkforlag, 2013) received critical praise from folk, jazz and contemporary music magazines alike. Originally approached by Nutshell to perform solo, Apneseth instead showcased this trio, whose debut recording is due for release early in 2016.

The trio's music mined the atmospheric and emotional potential of minimal gestures, and nowhere was this more notable than in Oyvind Hegg-Lind's touch, who brought tremendous finesse to his animated percussive/rhythmic play on an array of instruments including mini-xylophone and metal bowls. The tinkling of children's bells formed the backdrop to guitarist Stephan Meidell's pedal-treated plucks and scratches, while Apneseth carved a plaintive song.

Gradually the trio's sound began to swell, with Meidall's loops augmented by acoustic slide guitar. Apneseth changed fiddle, plucking it like a mandolin, encouraged by Hegg-Lind's greater rhythmic drive. The dynamics were in constant flux, however, and no sooner had the music's tributaries combined to forge a greater course than it dissipated, like a river disappearing underground.

A plucked guitar ostinato fanned the flames once more, with Apneseth picking up the rhythm with a mantra-like motif and bass drum joining the course. Meidall then cut loose with a piercing melody on electric guitar, soaring gracefully as the trio mounted a charge. The sonic power of the music was in stark contrast to the minimalist stirrings from which it stemmed. And it was to that sound world, of softly tinkling bells and sighing strings that the music finally returned.

Like poets, Apneseth, Oyvind Hegg-Lind and Meidell conveyed a compelling story with a spare vocabulary whose every syllable and every grammatical twist carried weight. A trio to watch out for.

Hayden Powell Trio

English-born but raised in Molde, trumpeter/composer Hayden Powell has risen to prominence through his work with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Magic Pocket, and more recently, in Iro Haarla's quintet. As a leader, albums such as The Attic (Inner Ear, 2011) and Roots and Stems (Periskop, 2014) have positioned Powell as one of the brightest young trumpet stars on the Norwegian jazz scene.

Powell, pianist Eyolf Dale and bassist Jo Skaansar dealt in straight-ahead, contemporary acoustic jazz, with an emphasis on tuneful dialog. From the cantering "Bass Clarinet Blues"—evocative of Wynton Marsalis/Ellis Marsalis' Peanuts-inspired Joe Cool's Blues (Sony, 1995)—to the muted-trumpet blues of the smouldering "Cobalt," the trio's aesthetic drew from the jazz tradition, but drummerless as it was, fashioned a very personal aesthetic.

There was no escaping the sunny, buoyancy of their more upbeat tunes, nor the strong, mellifluous chops of the leader. And between them, Dale and Skaansar swung when the music required, with Dale fashioning a dancing solo over a mid-tempo walking bass. A jaunty Latin-tinged tune followed, with simmering bass and choppy piano rhythms underpinning Powell's lyrical yet robust solo. The gently elegiac "May Song," built upon a meditative, shuffling groove, rounded out an uplifting set on a fine note.

There were no histrionics about the Hayden Powell Trio, no resorting to clichés or grandstanding—just honest, melodic music played with quiet passion and delivered straight from the heart.

Ayumi Tanaka Trio

Japanese pianist Ayumi Tanaka came to Norway inspired by the music of the country's vibrant jazz scene and enrolled in the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. This concert in Studio USF marked the live debut of her new trio, featuring bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen.

From the get-go the music slowly veered between tightly woven interplay and hushed passages, as in Svendsen's trilled bass solo, which ploughed a drone-like furrow. Tanaka and Johansen's re-entry was all the more striking after such an extended bass interlude, the pianist steering the trio into conventional terrain. The undulating score took another turn as Tanaka employed a single-note mantra punctuated by intermittent bass and washing cymbal.

In a performance marked by shifting dynamics and variations in texture, intimate dialog of floating tank weightlessness was juxtaposed against intense free-jazz explorations. The second track stemmed from Svendsen whacking his strings with two bows as Tanaka worked her keys feverishly to Johansen's tumult. A quieter segment ensued, underpinned by rumbling, slightly foreboding pulses. Tanaka stripped the music down further still, her single notes alternating with a deep, three-note mantra released at extended intervals; arco and mallets lent sympathetic, tip-toeing support.

Fluctuating rhythms—urgent and repetitive then flowing and elastic—characterized another composition with Tanaka in more expansive, energized mode. By way of contrast, a soft Ahmad Jamal-esque mallets ostinato paved the way for the pianist's feathery lyricism on the following track. And so it went. Bold collective statements gave way to bare-bones aesthetics, with the pianist sitting out for periods at a time, content to let the music breathe. An absorbing performance finished with a tuneful ballad of beautiful simplicity.

The Ayumi Tanka Trio boasts an original voice that injects tension into minimalism and brings discipline to free-jazz storm. In doing so it challenges various preconceptions about the nature of modern jazz piano trios.

Agbaland

The final evening slot of Nattjazz threw up three stylistically diverse acts simultaneously: in the Rokeriet art-pop singer Emilie Nicolas proved popular; Studio USF hosted Null, a contemporary fusion outfit led by guitarist Viktor Wilhelmsen; in Sardinen, the trio of Terje Isungset, Per Jorgensen and Sigbjorn Apeland drew a large crowd.

Agbaland began life as Isungset and Jorgensen's duo project with the release of Agbalagba Daada (NORCD, 2008), though their history together goes back over twenty years, including the ethereally beautiful recording World of Glass (All Ice Records, 2014)—played on instruments made entirely of ice.

The addition of Apeland brought an added dimension to Jorgensen and Isungset's open-ended improvisations. His brooding organ lent multiple hues to the music, ranging from fusion-esque angularity to deft folkloric textures that evoked Qawwali, gothic horror and baroque music in turn. Jorgensen switched between restless trumpet explorations and his distinctive vocals—high-pitched and yearning—which brought a quasi-shamanistic, other-worldly effect to the narrative, while Isungset juggled an array of percussive instruments. The contrasting timbres of conventional drum, wood, stone, metal, ram's horn and plastic tubing brought ever-changing textures to the mix.

The music unfolded over two extended pieces, their seams defined more by the applause than any sudden shift in dynamics. For seventy absorbing minutes the trio explored kernels of ideas, melodic, rhythmic or atmospheric, steering the music between intense peaks and dreamy plateaus and from abstract soundscapes to ecstatic, rhythmically dense charges. Stirring, haunting, musical chemistry.

Wrap-up

Nutshell delivered on every level. Musically, the program was fairly packed but at no time did it feel like overkill, which is always a possibility with showcase festivals. Nine showcase bands plus two more at each of the three nights of Nattjazz amounted to just about the right amount of music. Some of the delegates chose to pop in and out of all the gigs at Nattjazz, a luxury made possible by the close proximity of the venues to each other.

From solo piano to big-bands, from straight-ahead trios to free-jazz, from folk poetry to tuba-led chamber music and from electric fusion to experimental improv, the tremendous diversity of Norwegian jazz/contemporary music was plain to see. The vast stylistic range of music on show at Nutshell/Nattjazz alone rubbishes the opinion still held by some that Norwegian jazz is all dreamy atmospherics.

It's hard to keep up with all the new bands coming out of Norway but year after year Nutshell does a terrific job in highlighting some of the best up-and-coming groups, giving them on the one hand a platform and potential gateway to international gigs, and on the other, the oxygen of international media exposure.

The relaxed atmosphere surrounding Nutshell—at gigs, meals and while the delegates were being herded to and fro—resulted in networking of a most social nature and future alliances and collaborations between the delegates seemed assured by the end of the four days.

That the showcases were presented in delightful, imaginative and quite stunning settings, and that the hospitality of the Nutshell team was so exemplary, meant that the Nutshell experience was one to cherish. And, as Nutshell/Nattjazz demonstrated in resounding fashion, there's a lot more to Norway than award-winning, crinkly fjords.

Photo Credit: Tom Tveits, courtesy of Oddbjørn Steffensen

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